Columns - From the Sidelines

Obama at the UN: Everything has to change so that everything stays the same?

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Obama's much anticipated speech at the UN General Assembly has turned out to be a disappointment on many counts. As the president of the world's most powerful nation his remarks at this important forum could be seen as a pointer to US policy, and an indication of what's in store for the rest of the world. But for many his words probably produced more questions than answers. Much as he sought to convey a sense of empathy with forces for revolutionary changes taking place in parts of the world, there was something hollow about these assertions of solidarity and pledges of support for democratic reform.

It would appear that Obama was trying to do the impossible in this speech - to adopt a tone of moral authority whilst at the same time speaking to the imperatives of US policy, which are mainly guided by self interest. Nowhere was this contradiction more evident than in his remarks on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He made the usual assertions that "the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own" etc. whilst in the same breath indicating unequivocally that he would shoot down Palestine's bid for full membership of the UN as a sovereign state ("Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations"). The US has said all along it would use its veto in the Security Council to block Palestine's move. At the UN General Assembly on Friday PA President Mahmoud Abbas went ahead to formally demand the long overdue statehood for Palestine. Ecstatic Palestinians filled the streets at home in an expression of support, while at the UN Abbas's speech was received with a standing ovation.

The nuances of Obama's remarks on Palestine seem to have changed since his speech in May, where he made a strong plea for the two state solution based on a return to the 1967 borders and mutually agreed swaps. This time there was no mention of the 1967 borders or the West Bank settlements. Instead there was a strong assertion of America's commitment to Israel and Israel's security concerns. After Obama's speech angry protests were reported in Ramallah and Gaza.

The incompatibility of the US's assumed 'moral policeman' role with the pursuit of its own strategic interests was also apparent in Obama's references to the revolutions taking place in North Africa and the Gulf. He mentioned each state where people have risen up against autocratic rulers. But though this listing seemed to suggest some sort of uniformity in US support for democratic reform, this is clearly not the case.

In Libya, the US and its European allies launched a military intervention aimed at deposing a dictator who was no longer useful. In Syria, Bahrain and Yemen where hundreds of civilians continue to die in government crackdowns on demonstrations, the US has demonstrated varied and lukewarm responses, depending on its own strategic priorities in the region. In Syria it imposed sanctions against the leaders. In Yemen, which the US counts on for support in its fight against Al Qaeda, Obama says the US wants to work with that country's neighbours and US partners for "a peaceful transition of power from president Saleh." In Bahrain, which is home to the US's 5th fleet, he says the US will continue to call on the government and opposition to "pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people."

The case of Libya stands apart from the rest because it would appear to push the boundaries of what is permissible in the international sytem. The NATO airstrikes that ran into over 2000 sorties were made under the cover of a UN Security Council resolution intended to protect civilians. While events were carefully choreographed to show that Arab nations were part of the coalition that brought down Gaddafi, it is known that the leading powers behind this exercise were Britain, France and the US. The Arab League and African Union were full of misgivings. Russia and China refrained from using their veto in the Security Council but were not exactly willing partners in the project.

Hailing the new Libyan leadership that took its seat at the UN, Obama declared, "This is how the international community should work." Does his assertion have universal endorsement? There are obvious strategic gains for the western powers in this oil rich state, whose new leaders have already promised to give them preferential treatment in the matter of contracts. For all the altruistic talk of 'support for democracy' by those who led the military campaign, it is difficult to ignore the underlying scramble for control of strategic energy reserves.

Obama's assertion suggests that the change of regime forcibly brought about in Libya is a vindication of the theory of the "Responsibility to Protect," also known as R2P. It leaves much unsaid, and raises a number of issues. Obama's glowing tribute to the rebels of the National Transitional Council (NTC) glosses over the more troubling aspects of the western backed military campaign, such as the systematic targeting of black Africans and the killing of civilians in NATO air strikes. There appears to be a blockade of fuel, food, water and electricity in order to force a surrender in Gaddafi's last strongholds of Sirte and Bani Walid. Although a blockade is not mentioned in reports it is known that these cities are surrounded by the western backed rebels on every side, supplies are not going in and civilians are fleeing owing to acute shortages. In the absence of any other explanation of the humanitarian crisis what is one to conclude but that there is a deliberate embargo? How is this explained in terms of "Responsibility to Protect?"

If it is established now that military intervention to depose an unwanted leader in some part of the world is 'ok,' and Libya is advanced as the successful test case in R2P, the question arises as to which countries will carry out the military interventions in the future, and against whom? More importantly, who makes the decisions? Won't there be selectivity in the choices made? Will there be a clear North-South divide in the pattern that emerges? There seem to be more questions than answers.

The writer is a senior freelance journalist

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